Battling the BATmen: The Global Tobacco Industry Has Fought Tooth-and-Nail a New International Agreement to Curb the Spread of Smoking - to No Avail. Bob Burton Documents the Companies' Bullying Campaign and the Eventual Success of Little Guys Who Took Them On

By Burton, Bob | New Internationalist, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Battling the BATmen: The Global Tobacco Industry Has Fought Tooth-and-Nail a New International Agreement to Curb the Spread of Smoking - to No Avail. Bob Burton Documents the Companies' Bullying Campaign and the Eventual Success of Little Guys Who Took Them On


Burton, Bob, New Internationalist


[Graph Not Transcribed]

IT wasn't often that Martin Broughton, Chair of the London-based British American Tobacco (BAT) corporation, received good news. But he was thrilled when he was informed that Mike Moore, recently appointed Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), would join him at the Rugby World Cup final in Cardiff on 9 November 1999.

Broughton wrote to Moore, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand/Aotearoa, expressing delight that he had accepted the invitation 'for what we hope will be an "All Blacks vs England" rugby final'. Broughton's hospitality, however, had little to do with rugby.

In May that year, the World Health Assembly - with representatives from 191 countries - had unanimously voted to support the negotiation of a World Health Organization (WHO) convention to curtail tobacco's deadly toll. The WHO was predicting a doubling of tobacco-related deaths by 2025, with most of those fatalities in the Majority World.

When former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland took over as Director General of WHO in July 1999, she was determined that the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control be completed by May 2003 as part of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI).

Early indications were that the Convention would back policies the tobacco industry hated most - bans on advertising and promotion, support for tax increases and protecting people from second-hand smoke. "These are the three tried and tested things that have actually resulted in prevalence rates of smoking coming down in the countries that have adopted them,' according to Mary Assunta, Chair of the Framework Convention Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organizations supporting tobacco control.

Calling all allies

The global tobacco industry - dominated by giant companies like BAT, the US-headquartered Philip Morris (Altria) and Japan Tobacco (JTI) - was facing its biggest-ever crisis. Its preferred focus - on voluntary measures, youth smoking initiatives that had little effect and 'safer' cigarettes - looked likely to get short shrift.

An internal 1999 BAT memo sketched how politically isolated the tobacco industry had become and the potentially critical role of the WTO as one of its few remaining allies. The WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the World Bank and health ministers were all assessed by BAT as 'hostile' with only finance ministers and tobacco farmers, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) and the WTO listed as 'allies'.

The reason for hosting Moore at the rugby match, an internal BAT memo stated, was to 'create a platform for dialogue on the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative's impact on WTO principles'.

'A smoker and former NZ ally, Moore may prove key in helping to resist calls for the WHO's TFI proposals to be built into the WTO system,' the memo to Broughton stated. Another memo announced that company executives would soon be advised of legal arguments to use on 'the compatibility of the WHO Framework Convention with the WTO'.

Like so many of the tobacco industry's recent strategies, the best-laid plans soon fizzled. Around the time of the Rugby World Cup final, Brundtland extracted an agreement from Moore that the WTO would not disrupt the Tobacco Convention.

Despite the tobacco lobby's attempts to frustrate the Convention, the negotiations proceeded - though not always to the liking of those supporting it. Ross Hammond, an NGO activist with the Framework Convention Alliance, was initially dismayed at the timid first draft. 'When we saw the first draft there was a very robust discussion about whether we should just walk out of the process because it was completely going down the toilet,' he said.

BAT, meanwhile, was attempting to rally tobacco growers to its cause, especially in the global South. BAT described the International Tobacco Growers Association as 'an ally of ours in this campaign' who would 'whip up some opposition to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, particularly in looking for a delay in implementation'. …

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